Fruits of a “Not so Different” Vine

clay vessels Georgia
If I were to say….Georgia(country not state) invented wine…what would you think?  In our “here and now” thoughts you’d probably jump to France…or possibly Italy.  If you really thought about it…didn’t the Romans have wine?  Oh, and don’t forget about Jesus changing the water into wine at that wedding.  With that in mind, it might not come as too much of a surprise to realize that wine has been around for a long time.

Actually the fertile valleys of the South Caucasus is where many archaeologists believe the world’s first cultivated grapevines and neolithic wine production began over 8,000 years ago!   As a side note – this very area is on the same latitude as Southern France and Central Italy home to many world-class vineyards.

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It began with locals storing wild grapes in pits in the ground. Over the cold winter the juice would ferment into wine.(Happy juice!)  Consider this…if indeed this was in neolithic times …would “cavemen” come home from a hard day of hunting and settle down by the fire to enjoy a cup of wine? Well not quite…actually this would be the timeframe when hunters turned to farming and domesticating animals.

So, as this custom evolved, the farmers devised ways of fermenting the juice by storing it in large clay jugs that were buried in the ground.  The wine was conveniently stored underground and ready to serve at a cool temperature whenever needed(hence the first wine cellars).  Georgian artisans were able to produce unique and useful clay vessels to store and serve their wine and beverages. The Qvevris (or kvevris), were large earthenware vessels with an inside coating of beeswax.

DrinkingHorns from blog taitcommFor centuries, Georgians have been drinking (specially for the tourists) their wine from animal horns (called kantsi in Georgian). The horns were cleaned, boiled and polished, creating a unique and durable drinking vessel.

Fast forward to more modern times and apparently the Russians have always favored Georgian wines but after the war in 2006 there was an embargo placed on exporting wine to Russia. This was devastating to the Georgian wine industry.  But it seems Russians have missed their wine, and Georgians have missed the rubles from the exports…. so talks are now underway to lift the embargo. Current reports indicate the shipments to Russia will resume this summer.  In the meantime, Georgia has been active in promoting and exporting their wine to an expanding list of countries…including the USA.  Much of the wine is produced by thousands of small farmers (using primarily traditional techniques of wine-making).

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There are a few modern wineries, such as Badagoni, Kindzmaraulkis Mariani, Telavis Marani, Mukhrani, Mildiani, and the slightly older Teliani Valley producing their wine similar to western European methods.  They too are marketing their wines aggressively in western Europe and the United States.  The main wine grapes favored for Georgian wines are the Saperavi(red) grape and the Rkatsiteli(white) grape.  The Rkatsiteli yields a lovely bright amber wine that pairs well with Georgian foods. These are only 2 of the 38 varieties used for commercial purposes…out of more than 400 varietals available.

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During my recent trip to Georgia I spent two fun-filled days in the wine region of Kakheti to the east of the capital city of Tbilisi in the prominent Georgian appellations of  Telavi, Tsinandali and Kindzmarauli. You can read more about the region on my previous post “Too Much of a Good Thing”.   Suffice to say that I did sample a multitude of different Georgian wines during the short visit.  Based upon my brief exposure I would have to say that I enjoyed most of the wines presented.  I did not find the depth and complexity one would find in the Tuscan hills or the sandy hillsides along the Gironde.  But then those regions have been cultivating and expanding wine production by more modern adaptations.

DSCN4640Pheasants tears bottlesA few of the local farmers are still cultivating their wines in clay pots(qvevris) where you won’t find the tell-tale “oaky” finish so prevalent in western Europe and other countries.  Locals say this gives the wine a chance to display it’s own unique taste and bouquet.   Watch for wines produced by “Pheasants Tears” to experience wine fermented in the qvevris.

For me the most daunting challenge was just trying to pronounce the wine names.  I must admit that I would need more time to truly “learn” the different types of wine and appreciate their distinct tastes.

Here are just a few of the types of wine produced in Georgia –

RED-

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Saperivi – table red wine

Khvanchkara – semi-sweet red

Mukuzani – rich flavorful velvety red

WHITE –

Tsinandali – dry white wine

Mtsvane – light fruity white

Rkatsiteli – rich amber white

Needless to say these are just a few of the different wines. Now you must blend in the vintner and each vineyard’s unique terroir to derive the multitude of flavors and bouquets possible.

yes we drank with wine too

As the Georgian wine industry “matures” and more investors find their way to the storied hillsides of the Caucasus, you’ll see Georgian wines finding their way to the more expanded wine lists here in the States.

By all means be sure and give them a whirl and a twirl.  They may surprise and delight your tastebuds!

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Georgia’s Golden Treasures

Our final day in Tbilisi unveils some surprising jewels – one in particular was the Sun.  I figure tomorrow will be a beautiful day as I strike out for home.  Doesn’t it always work that way???

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If you can remember back to our arrival day, we saw a few of the city sites and then traveled to the old capital.  Well today is dedicated to all the hidden gems to be found in this capital city of  Tbilisi.  And I apologize….this is gonna sound like a history lesson but there IS so much history about this little country that I just have to share some of it with you.

To begin with – a visit to the National Museum of Georgia – You could spend days in this museum as it contains an impressive collection of artifacts and riches that date back thousands of years. Fortunately most displays are also in English along with the native Georgian even though a bit of the ancient history might be unfamiliar to the western visitor.  It was established in 2004 and is today a very large and inclusive collection of museums and research centers around the country.

In the National Museum the archaeological treasury contains golden artifacts and jewelry discovered in the various excavations around the country.  These are works of early Georgian(Colkhetian) goldsmiths representing jewelry dating from the 3rd century BC to the 4th century AD.  Colkhetian jewelry such as diadems, temple rings, necklaces, bracelets, etc. date to the 5th-4th centuries BC and were found on territory once part of the “kingdom of Colkheti”, known as Colchis or the “Land of the Golden Fleece” from Greek mythology.

Here are just a few of the amazing golden artifacts on display –

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On a more somber note – a special exhibit in one section of the museum documented the history of  70 brutal years of Soviet occupation and oppression.  Over 25% of the population died at the hands of Soviet occupiers.  It is a very grim reminder of what this nation has endured…and also a testament to their strong character and resiliency.

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From the museum we head out into the streets to explore Tbilisi –

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from the ultra modern Peace Bridge to the ancient buildings of “Old Town”.  The government has invested heavily in the reconstruction of the city – not only the old town but by bringing in modern architecture, expressive sculptures and other forms of art to be displayed around the city.

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As a terminus of the famous Silk Road, Tbilisi has always played a major part in the trading of goods, ideas and cultures. The Silk Road was a trading route that played a significant role in the development of the civilizations of China, the Indian subcontinent, Persia, Europe and Arabia.  The silk road initially connected China with India and Persia.

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Of course China’s exquisite silk goods were the lucrative item but trade extended to many other goods as well as various technologies, religions and philosophies…and unfortunately the bubonic plague. Georgia again in this 21st century is poised and in an advantageous position to facilitate trade between Asia and Europe.

As we navigate the busy and crowded streets we arrive at our lunch destination.  It is a stark contrast to all of our previous dining venues.  Here we are in the heart of the bustling and thriving “new town” and sitting down to lunch in an ultra modern, sleek restaurant featuring not only fabulous Georgian dishes but also a fair assortment of Italian dishes.  Once again, quantity overwhelms us.  But everything is absolutely delicious!

It is a relatively “quick”  lunch as we have an important appointment to keep with the US Ambassador this afternoon. DSCN2464 It is very obvious that the US would like to build and strengthen ties with this well-positioned(strategic) young democracy.  Entry to the Embassy was similar to going through airport security…well, OK a little bit more stringent.  Fortifications were evident with thick bullet-proof glass, massive stone walls, fences and barricades…you get the picture.  We were given a visitor’s pass in exchange for our passport; then escorted into the building and upstairs to the Ambassador’s conference room.

viait with the US Ambassador Ambassador Richard Norland was most gracious and engaging.  It was not all show but definite substance as we exchanged views and strategies for advancing tourism to Georgia. The exchange lasted almost an hour and everyone came away with a sense of accomplishment.

With time so crunched we have only a couple  of hours to repack and get ready for our evening of farewell celebrations.  Shopping time has been nil and the only “treasures” we’ve been able to snag are t-shirts from the embassy and a few Georgian/Russian chocolate bars.  What’s wrong with this picture?? I am sure there are untold trinkets and treasures…but unfortunately that will have to wait for the next time.

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Tonight we celebrate all that is Georgian…from its delectable foods and wines to its enchanting folk music and dancing.  Our hosts have truly outdone themselves this evening.  Our banquet displays a plethora of delectable dishes and the wine flows freely.  Georgian dancers and musicians entertain us throughout the evening.  It is a grand party celebrating  newly minted friendships and a promise of sharing this wonderful land and their enchanting people with everyone back home.

Stay tuned for more…..


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Georgia’s Capitals…old and new

It’s our first full day of touring and we are off to the ancient capital city of  Mtskheta. Enroute we drive to the top of a hill overlooking the ancient sacred capital and climb up to the church of Jvari perched on a cliff.DSCN1461

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Below us is the old capital town at the confluence of two rivers.. The old town has undergone a tremendous transformation due to the government’s initiative for upgrading various tourist regions for visitors.

They have done an admirable job and these areas are quite interesting.  There are new shops, restaurants, craftsmen demonstrating traditional ways of baking bread. After our visit to the sacred cathedral Sveti-Tskhoveli, the first Christian church to be built in Georgia. It’s reputed to be the place of Georgia’s conversion to Christianity in 337CE.

DSCN1512After lunch in one of the new restaurants near to the cathedral we return to Tbilisi to visit the main cathedral Sioni. This exquisite church contains the famed sacred cross of St. Nino.  It also serves as the seat of the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church.  It was quite a hike up the steps but the view was well worth the exertion. Plus it’s important to work up an appetite for these monsterous meals!!

After a bit of a rest…right!….we head out to the Black Lion Restaurant located in a rustic cellar in the city.  Many of the old houses had these cellars in the olden days when there was no refrigeration to keep their foods cool and to keep them from spoiling. Dinner was delightful and not quite as heavy as lunch.  Of the various dishes the main entrée was a delicious Georgian trout.

After dinner it was back to the hotel to repack for our first foray into the fabled GEORGIAN WINE COUNTRY.

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Why do these flights arrive at 3:00 AM??  This is the middle of the night for heaven’s sake! We departed at 9:30pm from Munich for a 3.5 hrs flight to Tbilisi. It’s pitch black out there except for a glorious display of stars! 3:15am touchdown and its raining. The Lufthansa flight was jam packed and an unusual observation… there were maybe a dozen women who all seemed to be traveling together…loaded down with plastic shopping bags from the H&M department store. I am thinking these gals are coming from a shopping foray bringing home goodies most likely to be sold to friends and family. Hummm capitalism in its infantsy.

Tbilisi’s airport is small and clean. All the customs agents(women) were available, friendly and very efficient. The arrivals moved through quickly and then headed down to the baggage claim area. I noticed there were two other flight on the monitors – one from Istanbul and one from Minsk.

Now the telling tale…will my luggage arrive at the same destination as its owner? It was not long before I saw it spinning around on the belt. Sweet! To me this is one of the most vital components for a positive and pleasurable trip. Since I have not mastered the art of traveling out of my carryon….my checked bag is my second most important possession.

My hosts(more on them later) for this adventure were ready and waiting right outside the arrival hall. Within a few short minutes we were on the road to town…about a 20 minute ride. All along the route there were relics of a once vibrant community. A culture squashed by the heavy soviet hand. The varied architectural styles were most interesting with a mix of asian, european and arabic influences.

On arrival and checkin the instructions were to get some rest and meet around 2pm for an afternoon orientational tour. Tell me…how many folks do you know that having arrived at 03:00am at a completely new and foreign destination can even consider going to bed?  You are running on adrenaline and your body clock is so messed up that backwards is beginning to feel like forward!  Nonetheless the bed does look pretty inviting so it’s “lights out” an more to follow.